Saturday 30 March 2019

Why no to nukes

George Monbiot, noted environmental journalist, is mostly right. However, in supporting nuclear power as a solution to global warming, he is wrong, and here’s why.
  • nuclear does nothing to reform the grid to work off a range of highly variable and local resources 
  • nuclear plants are expensive and often run massively over the budget in both time and cost
  • expanding nuclear will run out of affordable fuel fast
  • mining is extremely dirty and harmful to the environment as well a health and safety hazard to miners and anyone in the proximity of a mine
  • the link between nuclear power and weapons
  • waste disposal – a massive intergenerational problem
  • risks of accidents – far higher if nuclear proliferates into countries with a poor track record of managing large-scale complex systems 
  • decommissioning cost
In the UK context, Monbiot is also wrong for reasons that apply to local economics; I do not go into that here since that does not apply to South Africa.

Let me elaborate on the factual basis for my points.

Less-Discussed Points

Renewables require a grid (more correctly, grid plus transmission network) that works reliably with highly variable sources of power. Photovoltaics (solar panels) only produce power during daylight hours (and that is highly reduced by cloud). If wind turbines are widely distributed geographically, overall they provide a reliable source of power but not all at once. Home-based solar can give households incentives to manage power better with smart meters that discourage wasteful behaviour. It takes time to get all this working but it also takes time to do a significant-scale nuclear build. Superficially, nuclear looks easier since it replaces coal or gas power by the same type of centralized generation but with a different fuel source. But it has no requirement of a reformed grid, needed for renewables.

Building nuclear plants is complex, costly and frequently runs into massive time and cost over-runs. This has recently happened even in France, a country that can claim extensive experience with nuclear power. In a country with little or no experience of managing nuclear power projects, the risk of major cost and time overruns is even higher. South Africa’s latest coal plants, Medupi and Kusile, have run into problems of this nature and while a big coal plant is a very complex and specialized project, it is not as difficult as nuclear.

Nuclear Energy Production
Relatively static level of nuclear gneration
The World Nuclear Association estimates there is a 90-year supply of uranium, allowing exploitation at up to 3 times current pricing. That looks promising but the key is that this estimate is based on current rate of use – which has not changed much over the last 20 years. Ignoring military use (which in recent years has been declining and I hope that continues), currently about 11% of all electricity worldwide uses nuclear. Triple this to 33% and that 90 years drops to 30 years, meaning that the most recent plants will be built well after the point where they can be fuelled for their entire lifetime.

While more expensive uranium could be mined, that takes me to the next point. Uranium is mined in several grades, from high-grade ore that’s 20% uranium in Canada to very low-grade ore in Namibia that is 100 parts per million or 0.01%. The lowest-grade ore results in 99.99% of the material mined being waste and, even in Canada, which has the highest-grade ore, there are problems with toxic radioactive waste leaching into the environment.

Those are the less-discussed issues. Now on to the more commonly discussed issues.

Commonly-Discussed Points

There is a close link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Though there are very big differences in the technologies, research for weapons attracts a lot more funding than energy research. For this reason, nuclear fuels that are most similar to fissionable material needed for weapons have had the most attention. For example, thorium is far more plentiful than uranium in nature, yet has not made much progress into commercial-scale reactors despite a growing amount of research.

Then there is the issue of waste disposal, a massive problem for thousands of years into the future; the Union of Concerned Scientists summarizes the issues.

I need not elaborate on the risks of major accidents – Fukushima is the latest. If that could happen in one of the world’s most developed countries with a strong track of engineering and delivering major infrastructure projects, it is foolish to believe that the risk is not higher if nuclear plants proliferate in countries with a poor track record on such projects.

Finally there is the issue of decommissioning. France, the poster child for nuclear, with 75% of its electricity from nuclear plants, is planning to drop reliance on nuclear to 50% with a shift to renewables. While the Macron government has since slightly scaled back this ambition, it is widely agreed that French nuclear power is in trouble. Opinions vary on actual cost, but decommissioning nuclear plants is expensive. And it is a non-productive cost.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Climate Change and Idai

An image of the flooding from the European Space Agency.
Cyclone Idai as represented by the European Space Agency
Cyclone Idai is one of many extreme weather events.

Storms on this scale are not a new thing. But we have to expect more storms of increased severity as the planet heats up.

One of the main drivers of weather is transfers of energy between the atmosphere and the oceans.

One of the lesser-known facts about climate change is that 90% of the extra energy being captured by greenhouse gases is in the oceans.

While warming of the surface is alarming that is, so as to speak, only the tip of the iceberg.

Here in South Africa, we see a limited effect – the temporary loss of electricity from Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa hydroelectric power plant. But for our neighbours, this is a massive calamity.

Can we still stand by quietly while the forces of fossil fuel propel our planet towards the risk of a major extinction event?

The risk is not theoretical and distant – it is real and on our own doorstep, with major impacts not only in Mozambique but in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

So why is climate change not a big issue in the 2019 South African elections? Instead, we hear a ramping up of xenophobic rhetoric – and that is before we have a significant number of climate refugees caused in part by our own addiction to fossil fuels.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Project Gigasolar

Photovoltaics: incoming light from the
sun converts to electricity

What is the quickest way to add a gigawatt of capacity to the South African grid?

Small-scale solar power on homes, institutions and business.

I am talking here about making electricity from the sun, not heating water. That is another whole issue.

Photovoltaic panels or PV for short produce electricity as long as the sun is shining, Modern PV systems even produce some electricity in cloudy weather.

A single panel is generally about 300W – so how do we multiply that to 1GW – a million watts? That would take about 3.3-million solar panels. This is how we can get there:
  • 1 million single panels on RDP houses – in total 300MW
  • 4 panels on half a million homes (totalling for each 1.2kW) – in total 600MW
  • 50 panels on 5000 businesses (totalling for each 15kW) – in total 45MW
  • 100 panels on 2000 public institutions (totalling for each 30kW) – in total 60MW
You could vary the mix bit but the point is this is very doable if you have enough work crews.

Where would you get those work crews? See my article Eskom – Restructure or Destructure?

This solar power will not all be available at once. None of it will be available at night and output reduces radically under cloud. If it is widely spread out of the country, a substantial fraction will be available most of the time – cloud cover shifts around the country.

And this is just a start – once this first phase is installed, there is no reason not to gradually spread it out to all RDP houses and all homes, businesses and institutions that can afford it.

How can it be paid for?

The poor should receive it free on RDP houses, with some of the cost recovered from power generated. Just as an RDP house has to be occupied for 8 years before ownership transfers, there can be a transfer phase when the solar power unit is generating electricity partially to recover its own cost and to cover the cost of the free allowance of electricity for the poor. Eventually it should be fully paid off.

For private premises, the payback time is relatively short – about 6 years. The ability to feed excess power into the grid makes this a great investment. And that is where reform is needed. Municipalities are reluctant to encourage solar power because it cuts into their profit on selling electricity. The remedy is simple: a grid-connect fee calculated to be equivalent to the amount the municipality would have earned as their share off the electricity cost had they sold Eskom power. If done right this can be revenue-neutral for municipalities while reducing their dependence on Eskom.

Without the ability to feed into the grid, solar power is only useful for cases where much of your power usage is in daylight hours or if you use batteries to store power for use at night. Batteries are expensive and limit the usefulness of solar to backup systems or to those who have to live off grid.

How to stop infrastructure fails

The government should stop tying essential infrastructure projects to job creation. Essential infrastructure is that which is necessary to enable other development. Examples include water, electricity, transport and sewage.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point.

A city’s water supply is crumbling and needs to be renovated and expanded before any new opportunities can be opened up. You can’t build new houses, your local education institutions are under threat of closing, businesses are closing and not being replaced.

The government supplies funds and stipulates that at least 30% of the budget must be spent on local contractors to help stimulate the local economy and create skills.

The trouble with this policy is it creates a perverse incentive to fail. By requiring local contracting, it encourages awarding of the contract to a contractor who is open to corrupt awarding of local contracts to patronage networks. That becomes the goal, rather than awarding the contract to the contractor most able to deliver.

Short-term, a lot of jobs are created and everyone is happy. But this is where the perverse incentive comes in. Because the infrastructure is essential, if the project fails, it has to restart, creating more opportunity for bribes, kickbacks and rewarding patronage networks. Worse, with the failure of the project, there is no other economic game in town so the incentive to get on the next-round gravy train of the restarted project is even bigger.

Taken to the extreme, you kill your entire local economy – even future repeats of the failed project, as there becomes no point to the repeatedly failed project once there is no local economy to serve. Job creation? Short term. Then you go into decline and have a massive net job loss.

If this is done country-wide, the end result is an economic death spiral as the tax base contracts and new investment dries up.

Much better: remove the requirement for local investment from essential infrastructure, the kind that cannot be allowed to fail. Use the money you save by not having multiple disastrous repeats to create jobs in areas where failure will not have a knock-on effect. And allow the improved infrastructure to do its thing: stimulate new housing, new business, growth in public institutions.

Eskom – Restructure or Destructure?

The Government proposes to restructure Eskom into three entities:
  • generation
  • transmission
  • distribution
What is not clear is what problem this is meant to solve. Eskom’s problems are many and deep. The most obvious are:
  • failure to diversify away from coal – a sunset technology not only because of climate change but the massive pollution it causes in the vicinity of mines and the other toxic pollutants it emits like heavy metals
  • massive crisis in municipal debt – many are so far behind in paying Eskom that they have no way of recovering
  • unsustainable payroll –  there are estimates that Eskom has as many as 30,000 more employees than it can afford; the exact number is under question but it is likely to be large
  • inability to manage large generator projects – not only is Eskom investing in massive coal plants when this is the worst possible time to do so, but they have had massive cost overruns and are not operating reliably many years after they should have been commissioned
Which, exactly, of these problems does the proposed restructuring solve?

None of them.

Instead, it creates a new problem. If you split distribution of electricity from production, the distribution entities have an incentive to under-invest in maintenance as their business does not suffer as much as the producer if parts of the network fail. This is exactly what happened in Australia when this sort of split occurred. A similar example is the split of the British rail system where the rail network was no longer owned by the train operators and maintenance was neglected.

So what is the alternative?

The simplest is to keep Eskom as it is and lay off a large part of the workforce. But politically this cannot fly as mass job losses is not a plan any party will sell at election time. We also need to consider the effect on the workforce.

A better plan is for Eskom to stop resisting large-scale deployment of small-scale solar power. A rapid roll-out of home-scale and small business solar could add a gigawatt to the grid in a short timer – as little as 6 months. Two things hold this back: inadequate support of exporting excess power to the grid and municipal reliance on profits from sale of electricity. Both of these can be addressed – and I will in a separate article.

Eskom should split as follows, to enable this:
  • bulk generation and distribution – what Eskom does now but with a reduced workforce
  • RDP solar – installation of a solar panel on every RDP house, with an initial target of 1-million homes, to be funded by a combination of government subsidy and cost recovery of a share of the electricity generated for the first 5 years
  • public institution solar – schools and tertiary institutions should be encourage to go solar, with a mix of subsidies for the less wealthy and private funding for the well-funded insitutions
  • home solar – no subsidy; those who can afford to buy solar should be permitted to feed into the grid with a feed in tariff equal to their municipal electricity tariff
Each of these could be one separate company, or be further split if geography makes a smaller entity more viable. In the initial stage, the former Eskom company would be the sole provider where government was involved to eliminate the time delays and corruption of the tender process. Once we have the first gigawatt installed, this can be opened up to competition.

Green Policy in South Africa

The major parties in the 2019 South African election do not mention climate change in their manifestos – an existential threat to humanity.

Nor do they seriously address green energy, a proven job creator as well as part of the pathway to solving the climate crisis.

This blog contains personal views on green policy that anyone is free to lift but with attribution if they use them wholesale. I am not in this for gain but credit where it is due is fair use practice.

Why is there urgency around this issue?

Large parts of the country are in the grip of a serious drought including the Eastern Cape where I live. A prediction of climate change science is intensification of the hydrological cycle as the planet warms – so extremes of drought and flood will increase. And the poor are the ones who suffer the most, so this is a question of equity and justice.

Protests by school children about climate inaction are both inspiring and shameful. They are inspiring because it shows they care; they are shameful because it should not be up to children. This country had the experience of leaving addressing change to school children in 1976; have we learnt nothing from that?

What do school children have to protest about? Stealing their future for a quick buck. This is also very much about intergenerational justice. So they are right to be concerned. The first stage hits the poor the hardest but eventually it will hit everyone.

This is not the time for silence – silence is complicity.

But anger alone is not enough – you have to have solutions. And that is what this blog is about.

Check in here for articles; you can also follow my Facebook page on the same subject. These are personal views – use them to inform your voting choice.

Billion Trees

Vast tracts of the Eastern and Western Cape were forested in colonial times and were clear cut for construction, ship building and furniture...